University Ave. businesses struggle to survive Central Corridor construction woes

Bonnie's Cafe
Bonnie's Cafe on University Avenue in St. Paul, Minn., is surrounded by construction work for the Central Corridor project on May 10, 2011.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Construction on the Central Corridor light-rail line has turned the west end of University Avenue in St. Paul into a loud and messy hardhat zone, and yet the hundreds of shops, restaurants and other businesses along the avenue remain open. Now, business owners are trying to get that message out every way they can.

Consider the road in front of Bonnie's Café — now a dirt pile sectioned off by chain-link fence, where workers are installing a water main. The sidewalk in front of the business is open — and so is Bonnie's — but you might not know that if you're driving by.

That's why server Tammie Warn is on Vandalia Street in a bright pink T-shirt, waving down lines of cars and tractor trailers at the nearby red light. She hands out Bonnie's homemade sugar cookies to anyone who will roll down the window.

The idea, said owner Bonnie Roell, is to beguile commuters into pulling over into the back parking lot and stepping inside the tiny retro diner.

Stopping for a cookie
Tammie Warn offers a cookie to a passerby on Vandalia St. near Bonnie's Cafe in St. Paul, Minn. Wednesday, May 11, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"We wanted to let people know we're here, and we weren't going to let the construction close us," Roell said. "Give 'em a cookie, and if they like the cookie, maybe they'll come in and have breakfast."

Bonnie's Café, which shares the building with the Dubliner Pub, is the kind of small business that community leaders say they want to preserve. For 33 years, it has served up hash browns and hot cakes to truckers, ditch-diggers, Amtrak station agents and office workers. The floral wallpaper and green swivel barstools led one customer to say this place is straight out of Lake Wobegone.

But since construction started about seven weeks ago, Bonnie's staff says business has tapered off by as much as 40 percent. The street is torn up for about three miles, and traffic on the normally wide thoroughfare is reduced to two driving lanes. The remaining space is populated with barricades and earth movers.

"It just definitely hurts," said John Rybisky, who manages the café.

Rybisky thinks some customers have given up on coming in for lunch because of the hassles of getting here. Merchants on this stretch of the avenue have already bid farewell to street parking — forever. That was one trade-off to make room for the new train.

University Avenue construction
Construction crews work on the Central Corridor project on University Avenue near Vandalia Street in St. Paul, Minn., on May 10, 2011.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

On top of that, Rybisky said the Metropolitan Council's project office hasn't been responsive to his complaints.

"I've called our hotline number three or four times. You don't even get a call back," Rybisky said. "So I turned it over to my attorney, and it took three days before he got a response. Why do they call it a hotline? They don't answer the phone."

The Met Council said it prioritizes calls according to levels of urgency. Staff can take up to five days for some non-emergency comments or questions if they require follow-up.

EARLY ISSUES AND NEXT STEPS

Crews will be busy relocating utilities and reconstructing the street and sidewalks on the south side of University until this summer, and then switch to the north side. Once that's completed, traffic will be restored by the end of this year, and work will shift to the middle of the road. Some University Avenue businesses say they've been pleased with the Met Council's management of the program, despite the chaos that comes with construction.

Construction site
Bonnie's Cafe customers have to navigate around the Central Corridor construction on University Avenue in St. Paul, Minn. Wednesday, May 11, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Yet even before the first shovel hit the dirt, the project has generated some controversy. Minnesota Public Radio sued over concerns about noise and vibration from the future transit line; that case is expected to go to trial this fall. The University of Minnesota dropped its lawsuit against the Met Council in September. And in a third suit, a federal judge largely ruled against the St. Paul NAACP and Rondo neighborhood groups, which together sued over concerns of gentrification.

Project spokeswoman Laura Baenen said the construction is at its most intense now, but it will get better for the affected businesses.

"This is the year of the big earth-moving. This is the disruptive part of construction," Baenen said. "Next year, traffic will be going, and traffic and pedestrians will be where they were."

In 2012, the heavy construction will move east of Hamline Avenue.

SURVIVAL MODE

Bonnie's Café has been busy trying to woo customers in ways beyond the cookie scheme. They've hung a large banner outside their window advertising their distinction of being named "best diner" by City Pages. They've posted signs urging customers to tell their friends about the café on Facebook, and they've even held drawings for brand new women's watches.

Up and down University, businesses are in survival mode as they try to keep customers. McDonald's is offering "hard hat specials," while Big Top Liquors is raffling off a flat-screen TV. Dozens of merchants are participating in a discount loyalty program, called Discover Central Corridor Perks Card, which customers can download onto their smart phones.

Bonnie greets customers
Bonnie's Cafe owner Bonnie Roell greets customers at her business in St. Paul, Minn. Wednesday, May 11, 2011. Bonnie's Cafe has been in business more than 30 years.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

People can also join a Facebook group created by the Midway Chamber of Commerce that makes a point to have "Lunch on the Avenue" at various restaurants, including Bonnie's Café.

On a recent day, retired librarian Alice Engelman and her girlfriends sat in a booth at Bonnie's after fighting the uncertainty of which side streets were closed.

"It's like driving in Los Angeles," Engelman said. "You just grit your teeth, and you go."

Engelman and her friends say loyal customers need to worm their way through the construction zone and support Central Corridor businesses.

"I just have to keep the big picture, that this is good in the long run. Light rail, I really support it. The fewer cars and driving we do, the better," she said.

WILL THE MEASURES BE ENOUGH?

In April, the Met Council and project partners more than doubled the amount of money available in a loan fund to help businesses, to $4 million.

This change came after a federal judge ordered light-rail planners to do more studies on how construction would affect businesses. The loans are forgivable, representing a major shift from the Met Council's position — under previous leadership — that the loans should be paid back. Project partners contributing to the fund include the Met Council, the city of St. Paul and the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.

Each business can receive up to $20,000 if it can prove their losses through financial records.

But so far, not a cent has been dispensed to help University Avenue businesses. More than 40, including Bonnie's Café, have inquired about the program. The rules stipulate that the loan applicants are eligible for the money 60 days after construction has started.

"We're getting it out as fast as we can," said Nancy Homans, Mayor Chris Coleman's point person on Central Corridor.

The city is close to hiring two non-profit agencies to administer the loans. Homans hopes the money will be available by early June, and she is asking for patience for what she thinks is an extraordinary program that's still in its infancy.

"This is uncharted territory. We're all going to have to be a little flexible and figure out how it works best," Homans said. "But our goals are to support the businesses who, we all understand, are bearing the brunt of the construction impacts."

No one knows if the loans will be enough to ensure the survival of University Avenue businesses. Bonnie Roell, the owner of Bonnie's Café, is pretty confident her business will survive. Other University Avenue businesses hope they'll be around to see the benefits of the new train, when it starts running in 2014.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.